“Didn’t we have a lovely time, the day we went to Kenwood!” wrote Phil Nixon afterwards. Yes we did! The hotel lived up to our expectations: comfy beds, good food, smiling and helpful staff. Twenty-five of us gathered in the magnificent setting of the Terrace Room and played our hearts out. Here are a few stills; a bigger batch can be downloaded here.
It all turned out well in the end, but at just twenty-four hours notice, the mandolin workshop weekend I was supposed to be hosting last January was postponed due to an outbreak of norovirus at the venue, the otherwise idyllic 15th century Halsway Manor, nestling at the foot of the Quantocks in Somerset. Norovirus aside, it gave rise to symptoms of acute ‘mandolinus interruptus’ among the forty disappointed musicians who were due to attend and indulge in a weekend of group playing, nerdy chat (why not?) and a little light alcoholic refreshment. As host and tutor, it felt particularly galling as I had put in a lot of preparation arranging tunes in parts, making sure all participants had received the music and sound clips in advance and generally psyching myself up to answering questions about plectrum thicknesses, string gauges, action heights, performing in the concert with Hilary James on the Saturday night, and generally being ‘on duty’ all weekend.
I had been at Halsway for a similar event in 2015 and had found it immensely enjoyable despite the sense of responsibility, so I was relieved when the venue suggested we reschedule for Easter weekend. I was available, but inevitably some people were not. We still managed to number about thirty, and, as before, the combined forces were sounding like a half-decent mandolin orchestra by the Sunday afternoon. The mandolins were helped by a couple of mandocellos, a liuto cantabile (an Italian five course tenor-voiced mandolin) and one participant who had travelled all the way from Belgium with mandolin, mandola and mandocello, and even played mandobass (borrowed from Hilary James) for some of the time.
If there is one thing that makes me particularly apprehensive about leading such a large group, it is that the range of abilities will almost certainly be wide. This was indeed the case; no fewer than six people described themselves as complete beginners and were just about able to run up and down a major scale, read tablature to a speed of one note per bar, all the time still feeling uncomfortable holding a plectrum. At the other end of the scale were people who were already experienced in playing in mandolin orchestras, bluegrass bands, or just very good amateurs who played at home or with friends. My previous experience had been that the beginners rise to the occasion, surprising themselves at how much they achieve as the weekend progresses. Nevertheless, I took the precaution of including one very easy part in all the tunes I arranged. Hopefully, nobody felt left out.
Nobody was expecting high French cuisine, but, as before, the food was good and the staff were a delight. In the end, despite the norovirus, a great time was had by all, and it’s in the diary again for January next year.
I just dug out these MP3s of three half hour programmes I did for BBC Radio 2 back in 1996. You can listen to the full programmes here – but please bear in mind that much of the information given is now out of date.
Programme synopsis… If mandolin maestro Simon Mayor were marooned on a desert island, there’s no doubt about the one luxury he’d take. In this series of three programmes he goes in search of the origins of the mandolin, looks at what’s happening the world over, and tries to find out why players from Naples to Nashville go wild about it! The series features interviews with many of the world leading players, choice examples from disc, and some amusing anecdotes.
Marooned With A Mandolin – Programme 1 (broadcast 21st February 1996)
Marooned With A Mandolin – Programme 2 (broadcast 28th February 1996)
Marooned With A Mandolin – Programme 3 (broadcast 6th March 1996)
After a couple of years break, it’s great to be contributing a mandolin column to Acoustic Magazine once again. My first offering is in the current issue (as I write), No 114. It’s an unusually slow version of the beautiful traditional tune Golden Eagle.
Future columns will be in alternate issues – the even numbered ones. The magazine caters mainly for acoustic guitarists, but with nods towards other fretted instruments.
2nd January and just feeling like it’s 2014… Happy New Year to you all!
Fellow mandolinist and historian of the instrument Paul Sparks has sent me this absorbing article on the ladies’ mandolin bands of the Victorian era. Click here to view the PDF complete with some impressive photos.
Paul has also performed much of the music, in particular that of Clara Ross. Here are some video clips of him with John Mackenzie (guitar):
A first “proper” post on a new blog and, given that I’ve just got a new album out, the title “Opening Track” seemed appropriate… so here for all you mandolinists is the opening track on the new album The Art Of Mandolin. The Bolero by Raffaele Calace is a dramatic piece of late Victorian melodrama, or at least it would be if Victoria had been queen of Italy. Here in both standard notation and tablature is a PDF of the opening section – the hook! – and an MP3 to help you on your way.
This was recorded live with Hilary James on guitar and a bit of mandocello added in the studio afterwards.
Bolero is one of those pieces which is a little easier to play than it sounds, probably because it was written by a mandolinist. I love music like that, where everything seems to fall under the fingers so naturally. Must start writing more of the stuff myself!